- The Isle of Pines, 1668: Henry Neville's Uncertain Utopia by John Scheckter
Henry Neville's The Isle of Pines (1668) is a feast for postmodernists. It has unreliable narrators, multiple layers of meaning, an unstable textual existence, and a chequered reception history that defies any attempt at drawing definite conclusions about authorial intent. Such an elusiveness of meaning is of course characteristic for the utopian genre more concerned with possibilities than any ultimate truth. And what setting would be better suited for an early modern utopia than a lonely island near Terra Australis Incognita - within reach, yet untouched and unexplored? And who better to explore the possibilities offered by this island than a group of people thrown together by necessity and chance: an English bookkeeper and four women of different social rank and ethnicity stranded together following a shipwreck?
John Scheckter's new edition of The Isle of Pines attempts to grapple with the questions posed by Neville's short narrative through a reconstruction of its textual history (chapter one) as well as a postmodern and postcolonial reading. It offers a critical text collated from the different contemporary editions that have survived, complete with an appendix of variants and 'Preferred readings,' although the rationale for choosing one reading over another is not always clear. Also unclear is why Scheckter insists on keeping the long 's' in his edited text, if not to convey a sense of authenticity. Yet, authenticity seems virtually impossible to achieve in this case, as Scheckter himself seems to suggest that with Neville's Isle of Pines there is no such thing as one definite or "authoritative text" (36), only a multiplicity of contradictory versions.
One of the most interesting chapters of Scheckter's book therefore is the second on "Translations, Paratexts, and Ghosts," which traces the publication history of The Isle beyond England as well as "failed attempts to tell the story" (46), in America, for instance. Scheckter sees the translations as "manipulated artefacts" (49) whose producers aimed at making the text relevant for its "target culture, calling attention to the text as a performance both imported into and occurring within that culture" (47). While giving "[i]ndividual examples of translation" (48), however, Scheckter perhaps misses an exciting opportunity here to study the foreign language editions of The Isle in any systematic or comprehensive way, while also disregarding significant earlier studies on the subject by Max Hippe (1894) or Paul Ries (1985). More productive, meanwhile, is Scheckter's focus on paratexts as well as added images and maps, which indicate "how contemporary audiences picked out sites of meaning in Neville's brief narrative" (62), while at the same time adding to the confusion over the truth of the story, dealt with in chapter three on "Veracity, Uncertainty, and Narrative Structure." [End Page 87]
Here Scheckter discusses the more familiar conventions of travel writing and utopian fiction from Thomas More to the development of the modern novel, highlighting the "instability" of the text as reflective of "many areas of inquiry at the time," including science. For both the new science and travel writing had to rely primarily "upon evidence that is impossible to verify away from the site described" (78). Scheckter engages with the problem of The Isle's genre as discussed by Michael McKeon (1987) and Daniel Carey (1994), highlighting how closely Neville was following the conventions of "real" travel accounts, constructing "scientific vraisemblance" only to caution against "a too-easy elevation of hypothesis into more secure forms of certainty, especially in matters of social interaction and cultural encounter" (81).
While the first three chapters of Scheckter's book focus on the material history of the text and narrative technique, the following three offer a postcolonial reading of The Isle, building on work from David Fausett (1993) and Amy Boesky (1995) to Derek Hughes (2007). Chapter four on "Gender, Race, and the New Society" depicts the unusual situation on the lonely island as a social leveller. Where earlier scholars have insisted that George Pine not only imports patriarchy to the new society, but...